Last updated 1/22/23
When the obstacle in your way seems to have stopped you in your tracks,
it’s not a failure.
It’s part of what’s calling forth the necessary change
so you can move through, around, over, or under whatever is on your path to success.
— Christian Sørensen
This quote applies to my relationship to public domain books,
Although I started narrating audiobooks in 2002, it wasn’t until ACX launched in 2011 that I really got a foothold in the industry. Prior to that point, the market didn’t exist for a narrator who lived in Atlanta. You either had to be in New York or LA; otherwise, producers didn’t want to talk to you. With ACX, all of the rest of us could have a voice in audiobooks, too.
I soon burned out doing ACX projects since most of them were royalty share books where the rights holder was not promoting the audiobook. (Shameless plug: If you’re interested, I explain how to pick good ACX titles in my webinar Put Yourself in the ACX Drivers Seat, available on my Shop page.)
At the same time, I wasn’t getting traction with publishers. I decided to start recording more public domain books.
Public domain (PD) books are those where the copyright has expired. They belong to all of us, and anybody can do anything they want to with a book that’s in the public domain.
Over time, I’ve kind of become what I think of as the Public Domain Whisperer™️. I regularly search HathiTrust.org for interesting PD books. HathiTrust is a consortium of academic and research libraries with over 17 million digitized items, I often find a book that I think would be a good one for another narrator to do, so I send the link and the suggestion to them.
I’ve been gratified by the enthusiastic and excited responses to my finds. One experienced and award-winning narrator told me I had set them on a new path, and they’ve won a number of awards for their PD productions!
This article will be my Public Domain Narration Headquarters. I’ll start with ten reasons why I love, love, LOVE recording and publishing public domain books. Plus, check out the resources list below as well as the comments, where I answer your questions!
10. You’ll find an abundance of books that are ready for you to do.
Every year, new books come into the public domain!
On 1 January 2023, everything published in the United States in 1927 became public domain. What does that include? Well, the last of the Sherlock Holmes stories was published in 1927, so ALL of the Sherlock Holmes stories would be P.D. Other books from 1927 are the first three Hardy Boys mysteries and books by Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf and Mary Roberts Rinehart. These and many more books will be public domain on January 1st.
Right this minute, everything in the US published in 1927 and earlier is in the public domain. The copyrights have all expired.
Books published in the US from 1928 to 1963 inclusive could be in the public domain, and the majority of them are. The copyrights had to be renewed during those years, and most people didn’t renew them. You must research a book’s copyright status to determine if the copyright was renewed. You’ll find info about research in the Resources section below.
If a book was published in 1928, you can start recording it today and be ready to publish it on New Year’s Day next year. You may find the early bird gets the worm.
9. You have complete creative control and freedom.
You can change words. You can add or remove words. You can combine texts. In short, you can do anything you want to with a public domain book and are only limited by your creativity and imagination. I know people who have combined fairy tales or short stories (by theme or author) together to create a new compilation.
In a similar vein, one of my favorite projects of all time was one where I actually mashed up two public domain texts. Let me tell you the story to give you an idea of something you can do.
In 1889, Elizabeth Cochrane was a journalist for the NY World paper owned by Joseph Pulitzer. Her byline was Nellie Bly. As a publicity stunt for the paper, Nellie Bly challenged the feat set by fictional character Phileas Fogg to go around the world in 80 days. She was in New York and traveled east to London. She boarded a ship in mid-November, when the northern hemisphere was growing colder and losing daylight each day.
Meanwhile, Cosmopolitan, a rival magazine, didn’t want Nellie to get all the attention. So Cosmopolitan sent their reporter Elizabeth Bisland on a train that same day going west to San Francisco.
Nellie was trying to beat Phileas Fogg’s time, and Elizabeth wanted to beat Nellie! Nellie didn’t even know about Elizabeth’s trip.
They each wrote stories for their publication during their trips and later compiled their adventures in a book. Nellie’s book was published in 1890, and Elizabeth’s book appeared in 1891.
I mashed up their texts and put both women on the same timeline, which was so thrilling and exciting that I could barely stop to eat or sleep! I hired Melissa Reizian Frank to do a dual narration with me. In 2015, I published Bly vs Bisland: Beating Phileas Fogg in a Race Around the World in conjunction with the 125th anniversary of the end of the race. I love that whole project and still get chills thinking about it!
8. Public domain books don’t have any kind of external production deadlines.
If an idea sparks for you but you can’t work on it now, it will still be available when you have time for it. Be aware, though, why ideas love speed. Also, as another side note to that article, the Bly vs Bisland mash-up was an idea that woke me up!
Last year, another mash-up idea came to me. I’m slowly developing it in between narrating for publishers and continuing my self-publishing with ready-made PD books, as well as my continuous work on NarratorsRoadmap.com. A good PD book perfectly fills holes in my schedule!
7. Public domain books are usually extremely well edited, and they have very few typos.
I particularly appreciated this aspect after narrating some contemporary manuscripts that weren’t quite up to that standard.
6. With PD books, I can record in genres that I love or in those where I’d like to work, all a low pressure setting.
Nobody’s waiting on this recording or looking to see what I’m doing. I can try something new, which in turn gives me something else to share with people on social media and in my marketing.
I devour biographies for pleasure reading, so you can imagine my excitement to find Diane Disney Miller’s The Story of Walt Disney from 1957. The copyright was not renewed, and she later said she didn’t really write it. It’s Walt’s story as written by Pete Martin. It’s as close to Walt’s memoir as there ever was. I recorded it and was thrilled to publish it on the 110th anniversary of Walt Disney’s birthday.
5. When I’m self publishing, I’m always working and improving my narration skills.
Language styles change over time. I seem to pick PD books with very complex sentence structures. With every book I do, I look for ways to present the material naturally in a way that aids listener understanding.
As part of APAC this year, I was able to have a short meeting with a producer. Their first question was, “Tell me what you’ve been doing lately.” I replied that I had recently completed a true crime book and a couple of biographies. I didn’t distinguish that the true crime book was for a publisher and the 2 biographies were self-published public domain books. It all counts!
4. You can still record a PD book even if there are other audio editions of the book available.
The beauty of public domain texts is that they belong to all of us! If it’s a popular book like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, you may discover other audio editions available, sometimes MANY other productions. Nothing can stop you from recording another one! Your interpretation is going to be different than anyone else, and you’re making art that you’re proud of.
Current events can generate interest in an audiobook, for instance the news story behind this vague tweet where I went looking for a PD book. In 1915, explorer Ernest Shackleton sailed his ship Endurance to Antarctica. It got stuck in the ice and sunk. Over a century later, the ship was discovered. The History Channel showed a fascinating documentary about it in March.
My search for related books revealed Shackleton wrote about it in South. Several audio versions of it had been done, but I would happily record that book if I were a British man. He wrote another book about a different exploration that’s not on Audible. I also found a fabulous biography about him that’s not in audio.
An upcoming movie tie-in could be a great reason to publish a new edition of a book! The movie company’s marketing machine could put the wind in your sails and help your audiobook gain visibility.
3. I can submit my work for review.
AudioFile Magazine reviewed one of my public domain books and has reviewed many from other narrators.
2. I can submit my work for awards.
I entered So Big by Edna Ferber in the Independent Audiobook Awards and was thrilled when it became a finalist in the Classics category.
1. I keep all of the royalties.
I have to tell you, passive income from public domain audiobooks every month is the gift that keeps on giving!
Like a royalty share book, you’re not guaranteed a book will sell, much less be a hit. It may take a while for it to earn out. It may never earn out. It’s always a risk.
But one PD book that does really well can make up for all the ones that aren’t selling as well! The more public domain books I record and publish, the more I want to do, and the more excited I am about my work.
Other resources on this topic:
As I continue to create content related to public domain books, I’ll update the list below.
- I include the most detail about public domain books in my Create Your Own Path video course, which is available to all paid members of NarratorsRoadmap.com.
- I talk about finding sources of books or even inspiration for your search. I also discuss how to research copyrights to determine whether the book is in the public domain, explain publishing considerations and distributor options, and include a long list of relevant resources not found here. For instance, I’ve curated collections of books on Hathitrust.org that narrators might choose to perform in the categories of: 1925 publications, 1926 publications, 1927 publications, baseball, biographies/memoirs, diaries and letters, fiction, history and crime, Theodore Roosevelt, and Will Rogers. I also link to other sites with PD books.
- Members also can access my Audiobook Distributors Comparison Chart. I compare 6 distributors across 22 points so you can decide the best distributor(s) for your audiobook.
- As a special enticement to join, you’ll find a discount on my Shop page in the “Rent My Brain” section.
- I participated in this June 2022 Clubhouse chat about PD books.
- I’ve long advocated creating your own work. In addition to my 10 points above in this article, you might read my articles Reasons to Create Your Own Stuff part 1 and part 2. The profound Eckhart Tolle quote that I highlighted in part 2 has proven true for me.
- Since public domain books have much in common with royalty share books, the 5 reasons I listed in this article to do royalty share books apply to public domain books. When I wrote I’d do a royalty share over a public domain title, I wasn’t commercially publishing PD books. Now, I’d publish a PD book before I’d narrate and produce an RS book!
- I wrote this article to help narrators understand some copyright basics.
- These 2 articles are overflowing with links you’ll use to research rights holders and copyright dates:
- If you distribute your audiobook through ACX or Findaway, which uses ACX to distribute to Audible, you must start the process with an Amazon edition. Keep in mind that ACX is owned by Audible, which is owned by Amazon; as a result, everything in ACX is part of the Amazon ecosystem. This requirement for an Amazon edition is ONLY true of ACX and Findaway. Other distributors do not have this stipulation. My Audiobook Distributors Comparison Chart for members of NarratorsRoadmap.com has much more info about distributors’ requirements and offerings.
- This article describes what I did to publish a Kindle edition. Be sure to read all of the extensive comments to get the workaround and more tips!
Cover Art and/or Supplemental PDF of Images
- I detailed my experiences in finding and selecting art for the Kindle version of Fanny Herself: A Passionate Instinct in this article. At the time, I had change the title to differentiate it per Kindle Publishing rules. If I were publishing it today, I’d leave the original title as is so that it would get displayed with the other editions on Amazon.
- This article examines whether you can legally re-use the images in a public domain book for your cover art or supplemental PDF.
- When using art depicting a real person, you not only have to research the copyright for the image but also whether you would violate their Right of Publicity as detailed in this article.
- You can use public domain art for your cover. My article Tour of Sites with Public Domain Art links to a bunch of repositories with comments about the images available in each.
- This site shows the most popular font by year. I love using a font that is authentic to the period of the book!
- You might find inspiring ideas in my articles Creating promo videos with public domain components part 1 and part 2.